Perfect Sound Forever


photo by Boston Calendar

the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
by Danny Martin

In many bars, coffee shops, and restaurants across America, any night of the week, you can find a unique entertainment experience: the "open mic" ("open microphone") night. As a seasoned veteran with over 20 years of experience on these scenes, from New York to San Francisco, and most recently in rural Pennsylvania, here I offer some perspective on the open mic, from the viewpoint of both a musician looking to perform, and an audience member just there to listen and have a good time.

Musical Peer Review

I have found open mics to be a great vehicle to accomplish several goals: trying out new material, meeting other musicians with whom to collaborate, and getting offered paying gigs, to name a few. But probably the biggest benefit has been getting comfortable performing publicly. What people might not realize is that an open mic performance can often be more nerve-inducing than a paid gig. This is because the audience is generally watching more closely, as opposed to when you're booked at a venue, where most in attendance are talking amongst themselves, focusing on their own food, drink, or company. At an open mic, a significant portion of the audience is comprised of the performers themselves. And so, as everyone waits patiently for their own turn, they watch you the performer, sometimes with competitive scrutiny, sometimes in earnest support. The undivided attention can bring out nerves, but it's also a good way to overcome them. The whole process in a sense is one big peer review.

A typical open mic consists of a sign-up sheet, where upon arrival, you determine how long it will be until you get to play. It is not a good feeling when you show up and see 50 people signed up already. Sure, it is a good sign that the event is popular, and maybe you'll have the benefit of hearing some good music. But at the end of the day, everyone values their own time the most... so it can be frustrating to have to spend 2 hours or more just waiting to play a few minutes.

On the other hand, I've been in situations where there were virtually no other signees on the list. And it's great to be able to play right away, and for as long as you want. But playing for less people can also be less rewarding. How fulfilling and fun is it really to play for an empty crowd? The ideal situation is finding the sweet spot between the two extremes.

Open Mic Hosts

Probably the best experience I've ever had at an open mic, and the closest I've ever felt to being a "rock star," was the time I performed Third Eye Blind's "Jumper" to an enthusiastic crowd that sang along loudly. Sometimes, you get a packed audience that is filled with not just performers, but friends of theirs or of the host. That particular night, the host brought a lot of people of exactly the demographic that would have most been into that song... those who came of age in the '90's.

The point is, the host has the single greatest influence on the open mic. He or she is ultimately responsible for bringing in customers, and failure to deliver guarantees a halt to the arrangement by the venue's owner or manager. I've seen these events open and close within a matter of weeks. The host also in a sense manages the evening's talent. With the sign up list comes the responsibility of determining how many songs each person is allowed, when to cut performers short due to time (and sometimes auditory patience) running out, setting up and sound-checking, etc. The host generally provides the equipment, such as PA system, floor monitors, and microphones, and can also offer accompaniment for the signed up performers. Sometimes the host brings a full "house band."

I hate to speak negatively of open mic hosts. Most are very nice people who are supportive of all their participants. They recognize the vulnerability involved in performing, and they want to be fair to everyone. Some on rare occasion take advantage of their position however, and make the show all about them. It is an unspoken rule that the host performs a few songs at the beginning and sometimes at the close of the evening. But I've seen hosts go way past their share of time. Some would take several turns during the course of an evening that had a long list of one-turn-only performers. Some hosts would jump onstage during others' turns and provide uninvited accompaniment. Some, during electric open mics, would use the opportunity to jam with their own band for extended sessions. Which might also be one of the reasons the full band format is less popular.

Acoustic, Electric, and Other

If one were to hear the term "open mic night" without any context, perhaps a scene that would come to mind, especially among older people, would be the acoustic folk music revival of the '50's and early sixties, most commonly associated with coffeehouses and protest music, and the famous acts associated with it: Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, to name a few. Perhaps that list could be extended to the great beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

In reality, there are many different types of open mics, and the owners do the public a favor when they label them accurately: acoustic open mic, electric open mic, open mic "jam" (usually a free form jam session featuring a house band), blues open mic, bluegrass jam, comedy open mic and poetry open mic. I have attended open mics in each of these forms, and have listed them in order of prevalence. An event just listed as "open mic" might technically showcase any of the kinds of acts mentioned, but the default by a wide margin would be acoustic open mic. In fact, probably over 95% of the performers I've seen at these events have been musicians singing to their own acoustic steel-string guitar accompaniment. And while plenty of the music can easily be classified as "folk music," in all my years, I've probably heard less than a half dozen songs that I would label as "protest music" or even consider overtly political.

Electric open mics, which usually feature a full band, or at least a rhythm section of drums and electric bass, are a different animal altogether. I have seen these grow in popularity over the years. They are a great outlet for instrumentalists to showcase their abilities without necessarily having to sing or accompany themselves. It is one of the last surviving forums of the guitar hero... from back in the days when guitar solos were popular, from Hendrix to hair metal. Those who can emulate Clapton, Jimmy Page or Eddie Van Halen can still have an outlet to demonstrate their technical proficiency. And those who can croon like Robert Plant don't have to worry about learning the chords to "Stairway to Heaven." They can just ask the band to play it at electric open mic night (should they be so brazenly cliched).

Seeger famously criticized Dylan's use of the electric full band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, as opposed to his prior acoustic sets, citing noise level and poor sound quality as some of the reasons. Likewise, some on the open mic scene prefer the acoustic versions to the electric, for similar reasons. But there are some other problems of note with both kinds.

Karaoke With an Instrument, and Other Annoyances

I've seen a handful of great original open mic songs over the years. The musicians in the open mics I attended in New York City performed original music with the most frequency, while in central Pennsylvania, cover songs seem to rule the day. There is nothing wrong with the latter. Sometimes, interesting arrangements of familiar songs give fresh life to them. Sometimes tunes we hadn't heard before are introduced into our musical universe, and it presents an opportunity to look up the original artists and add their versions to our collections.

But sometimes, it is really just karaoke-with-a-live-instrument. One of the main reasons people enjoy doing karaoke is they like to hear their own voice through a microphone, putting themselves in the shoes of the artist doing their favorite songs. Similarly, if it's electric open mic night, one can just ask the house band to play the song if they know it, and then sing away.

But even those performers who are there with acoustic guitar in hand for self-accompaniment may not be offering anything substantially removed from karaoke. Perhaps all of them should be commended for taking the time to learn guitar and the accompaniment for the song. But sometimes shortcomings emerge:

1. The bare minimum on guitar is performed, i.e. just chords where there is a more prominent arrangement on the original version, or some other distinctive instrument such as piano, and the riff is totally left out. In general, there is no specific reason "acoustic open mic" has to mean "acoustic steel string guitar open mic," and a wider variety of instruments would make things more interesting. Not everything translates well to acoustic guitar.

2. Well-known songs are transposed to much lower keys. Not just one or two pitches, but several, and sometimes the song may be sung a full octave lower than the original. I've seen this happen a lot with older male performers. And not to sound ageist, but key matters, and singing in a lower register does not always have the same energy and youthful tonal quality as higher-keyed singing. A dramatic key transposition can be jarring to the ear, when juxtaposed with the familiar version of the song people might have in their memory banks. And it's not that singers should try to sing out of their ranges, but perhaps they should find material that is more suitable for their natural voices.

3. Songs are overdone and become cliche. Perhaps this is a matter of personal taste or exposure, but when you hear the same songs being covered over and over, it certainly dilutes the appeal. In the early '90's, you had lots of duos learning Extreme's "More Than Words," and that percussive guitar slap became an overdone style. A couple years later, everyone seemed to want to play Clapton's unplugged version of "Layla." The song "Wagon Wheel" by local favorite Old Crow Medicine Show is very popular among my fellow Pennsylvanians. But many of us could probably do without hearing another open mic rendition of it.

4. Lack of genre diversity. This is tied to the previous point, but the open mics I've attended over the years have skewed towards pop and classic rock covers. There has been a dearth of R&B, rap, reggae, electronic, country, piano-based, classical or jazz (excluding the rare jazz-specific open jam session). The rare performances I have seen of these have stood out as outstanding.

All this is not to say that original music doesn't have its problems too. Some of the above can certainly apply to both originals and covers. Additionally, you get people trying to cheat the system and extend their stage time. When the host sets a rule for a specific number of songs per performer, or gives them a "last song" warning for their time-allotment, all too often I've seen people pull a 10-minute song out of their hat.

And then there are those with excessive between-song banter or those who take forever to set up. I saw one guy tune his guitar for 5-minutes onstage, remarking "I tune because I care," before ironically breaking a string mid-song and having to discontinue his set.

But probably the biggest annoyances you can expect at an open mic are the full-of-themselves musicians, and those who take themselves too seriously. Like the guy who announced he had just gotten back from his tour and was taking requests, and completely disregarded the song limit, to the point where he played twice as long as anyone else (which was also the host's fault for letting him get away with it). Or those who go out of their way to let you know how prolific of a songwriter they are ("I just wrote this song today" is an introduction I've heard more than once, and it never appears to be intended as a disclaimer). And to this day, I have no idea whether the guy was being serious who introduced himself by plugging his own guitar lessons, proceeded to play some over-the-top ostentatious percussive guitar instrumentals, and then explained how his secret was that he had gone down to the "Crossroads" a la Robert Johnson and made a deal with the devil (personally, I thought it was kind of funny but nobody seemed to be laughing).


The open mic is a truly American experience in the sense that it is a very democratic process. It is where every performer, at least in theory, gets an equal say and their voice heard. A select few may make a lasting impression, but all should be supported for trying. Whether you're a musician or music-lover, there are many worthwhile reasons to attend. But it does help to get an idea of who is hosting and who else is attending, and to set your expectations realistically. You likely won't be stumbling upon the next Bob Dylan or the next Greenwich Village circa 1960 scene. But I would encourage artists to play more original music, and if you're there as a listener, let them know you would like to hear more of it. You just might make someone's day, and they might start a movement some day.

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